Daily waste woes: Bishkek сitizens discard tons of food packaging, yet the majority Is recyclable

April 24, 2023

Daily waste woes: Bishkek сitizens discard tons of food packaging, yet the majority Is recyclable

April 24, 2023
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Every day in Bishkek, according to various estimates, between 870 to 1000 tons of waste are collected. More than half of this waste consists of organic materials, which include not only natural debris like fallen leaves or mowed grass but also food waste – leftovers from meals, vegetables, fruits, and animal products.

The journey of many food waste items begins on the shelves of stores: beverages, groceries, confectionery, and sausages – Bishkek supermarkets are abundant with food products. Along with these products, we purchase various packaging, which, along with food remnants, ends up in trash containers and then to the city landfill.

In order to understand what kind of packaging products are packaged in Bishkek supermarkets, we analyzed more than six thousand types of products on the website of one of the largest hypermarket chains. Which of these packages can be recycled and which cannot?

Most products are packaged in plastic

"Try a zero-waste lifestyle. [...] Make eco-friendly choices when shopping: next time, opt for products without plastic packaging", — recommends the UN Environment Programme. However, in the reality of Bishkek supermarkets, this is practically impossible – after studying thousands of products, we found that 95% of them are packaged in something.

Moreover, 7 out of 10 items are partially or entirely wrapped in plastic. The remaining are packaged in paper, cardboard, metal, aluminum, wood, glass, and mixed materials.

To find out what exactly a particular product is packaged in, you can look at the special labeling on the packaging. It is also called the recycling code and simplifies the waste sorting and recycling process. Often, these codes are indicated in a special triangle ♻ in the form of a number or letter. For example, aluminum material has a recycling code of 41 and is denoted by the letters ALU.
Illustrations: Lex Titova for Peshcom

Non-recyclable packaging

| on supermarket shelves has packaging or parts made from materials that cannot be recycled in Kyrgyzstan (and some, anywhere in the world) — recyclers do not accept them, and they cannot be turned into secondary raw materials. Mostly, this involves plastic.

The most common type of non-recyclable plastic is labeled as 7 or "Other" — it is a mixture of various substances or plastics that do not fall under the numbers of other recycling codes.
The number 7 plastic is not recyclable not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in other countries worldwide. Additionally, such packaging may contain toxic substances. Other plastics, including those with the numbers 3 (e.g., trays under frozen chicken) and 6 (e.g., yogurt cups), can also release toxins during their production, use, or disposal. International organizations, such as Greenpeace, recommend completely avoiding their circulation.

"Dangerous chemical compounds form during the extraction and production of raw materials. New toxic substances are added when plastic is used, and when plastic becomes waste, it contaminates the environment and our food," — states a report by the Center for International Environmental Law.

According to the Center, the use of plastic products exposes people to a significant amount of microplastic particles and hundreds of toxic substances, which can lead to cancer, developmental delays, endocrine disruptions, and nervous system diseases.
во что упакованы товары
Illustration: Lex Titova for Peshcom
Various alloys and composite packaging made of plastic, cardboard, paper, aluminum, or tin are also not recyclable.

For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, "Tetrapaks" — multilayered packaging for juice or milk that initially appears to be regular cardboard — are not recyclable. In reality, besides cardboard, such packaging contains a layer of aluminum and several layers of polyethylene. Separating these layers is a challenging task.

In other countries, specialized plants are built to recycle such packaging. However, even in developed countries of the European Union, only half of "Tetrapak" waste is recycled, and in Russia, only 5% of such packaging gets a second life.

In Bishkek, non-recyclable packaging goes straight to the city landfill, where it breaks down into smaller particles, polluting the soil and water. These particles become endless fuel for fires at the city landfill. As a result, not only residents of nearby houses but also other city dwellers breathe in toxic smoke.
свалка Бишкек
Illustration: Lex Titova for Peshcom

Multi-ton deliveries

Where does the plastic on Kyrgyzstan's shelves come from? According to our analysis, out of all the product names, only a quarter were produced in Kyrgyzstan. The rest are mainly imported from EAEU countries and Central Asia.

To assess the scale of imports of goods in non-recyclable packaging, we analyzed detailed import data and correlated them with the most frequently encountered categories of goods with non-recyclable packaging.

Last year, food imports to Kyrgyzstan exceeded $1 billion. The main importers are Russia (almost half of the imports), Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Our comparison showed that the main imported goods with non-recyclable packaging are fast-food products, sauces, tea, coffee, chocolate, and candies. They make up almost half of all goods imported into Kyrgyzstan in packaging that cannot be recycled.

For example, these include packaging in the form of doypacks, plastic pouches for "instant" porridge or noodles, wrappers from candies, pouches and zip-lock bags for coffee, and coffee sachets.
Among these products, instant noodles take the first place. Last year, 24 thousand tons of them were imported into Kyrgyzstan — an approximate weight equivalent to 4 thousand average-sized elephants.

The second and third places are occupied by chocolate, candies, tea, and coffee — with an average import of 16 thousand tons. From this volume of tea and coffee, you could brew enough cups to satisfy the entire population of China, India, North America, and Kyrgyzstan in one go.

Finally, almost 11 thousand tons of sauces were imported — mainly mayonnaise and ketchup. This volume would be enough to fill almost five Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Additionally, sausages and processed meat products are often packaged in non-recyclable plastic, but they are mostly produced in Kyrgyzstan rather than being imported.

Bottles, caps, bags: what can be recycled?

| of analyzed products have the potential for recycling. This is not only good from an environmental standpoint but also economically beneficial, as waste can be turned into secondary raw materials and in some cases can be recycled without a loss in quality.

For instance, plastic discarded into waste containers can be transformed into granules, plastic chips, synthetic padding, and other materials. The possible end products from recycled plastics can range from hoses and buckets to footwear or new beverage bottles.
переработка отходов
Illustration: Lex Titova for Peshcom
In Kyrgyzstan, there are currently more than 80 factories engaged in recycling secondary materials from plastic, metal, paper, textiles, as well as industrial and organic waste. According to the study "Waste - New Income", Kyrgyzstan exported plastic secondary raw materials over $44 million to Central Asian countries and Russia in just nine months of 2022.

Although the recycling potential in Kyrgyzstan is substantial, the process has many nuances. For instance, according to Aimeerim Tursalieva, one of the creators of the waste sorting mobile application "Tazar", plastic recyclers in Kyrgyzstan often assess the appearance of secondary materials visually rather than relying on labeling.

"Recyclers speak in the language of forms. They touch the plastic, identify what looks suitable visually. For example, the denser the plastic or film, the more willingly they accept it. When it's too soft, it becomes harder and more expensive for them to make granules", — explains Tursalieva.

It can be reliably stated that recyclers readily accept PET plastic bottles from beverages — such as cola or water — along with their caps, rigid disposable tableware and containers, and polyethylene bags.

All recycling guidelines also indicate that before submitting secondary materials, it should be cleaned of food residues, washed, and dried. According to Aimeerim Tursalieva, this is necessary to prevent dirty bottles or containers from damaging the equipment - recyclers find it easier to reject secondary materials than to repair the machinery later.

In addition to plastic, Kyrgyzstan also recycles paper and cardboard. However, due to the absence of a separate waste collection system, a significant portion of potential secondary materials ends up in landfills along with other waste. Recyclers do not accept dirty or wet paper and cardboard.

According to Tursalieva, Kyrgyzstan does not collect the necessary volumes of secondary materials from paper and cardboard for recycling. "Only about 30-40% is collected, and the rest is imported from other countries", — says the expert. This affects the ability to produce end products, such as toilet paper.

Metal packaging from products is also collected reluctantly. According to recyclers, items like tin cans weigh little but take up a lot of space. Because of this, they are referred to as "clutter," and before recycling, they accumulate for months to gather the required volumes.

What else have we discovered?

| of the products did not have a recycling code on the main packaging. There were also cases where component markings were not provided, or only the recycling symbol was drawn without a corresponding number or letter designation.

For example, we encountered this while analyzing tea: many varieties are packaged in a cardboard box, but inside, there is an additional bag where the tea is stored. The cardboard box may have markings for the cardboard material, but the material of the inner part is unknown.
According to the technical regulation "On the Safety of Packaging" of the Eurasian Economic Union Customs Union (EAEU CU), which includes Kyrgyzstan, manufacturers are obligated to place recycling markings on their products.

"The labeling should contain information necessary for the identification of the material used in the packaging, for the purpose of facilitating the collection and reuse of packaging", — stated in the document.

Similar requirements exist in almost all parts of the world, for example, in the European Union.

How are officials and activists trying to solve waste problems?

In various years, the municipality of Bishkek attempted to organize separate waste collection points; however, none of these initiatives has yielded results so far.

For instance, recently, several waste sorting points appeared in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. In one of the courtyards, regular trash bins were replaced with a point for sorting recyclables.

Nevertheless, the municipality did not conduct an accessible information campaign for citizens on how to use the new points and why it is necessary to sort waste. As a result, residents continued to dispose of unsorted waste into the containers, and the municipal services continued to transport it to the landfill in the traditional manner.

However, the situation with promoting ecological awareness is improving, mainly thanks to local initiatives and activists. For example, thanks to the mobile application "Tazar", which has been operating in Kyrgyzstan for several years, it is possible to learn how to correctly sort waste, find the addresses of recycling points, or connect with recyclers.

Also, in Kyrgyzstan began to install containers for separate waste collection more often. For example, the recyclers "Begreen" have installed 530 bins in the form of giant bottles throughout the country, where PET plastic can be deposited. Additionally, the eco-project "Kirpi" not only assists in opening collection points for recyclables in the regions of Kyrgyzstan but also processes plastic into outdoor furniture items.

Endless "waste reform"

The city dump is inseparable from Bishkek. It belongs to the Pervomaysky district of the capital and borders several unauthorized suburbs areas — Altyn-Kazyk and Kalys-Ordo are located less than one kilometer away from it. This is where all non-recyclable and as yet unsorted packaging from goods in Bishkek and the suburbs is transported.

The landfill was built back in 1978. At that time, it was not designed for the current quantity and variety of waste or for such a long operational period.

To address waste problems, over 10 years ago, Bishkek initiated a "waste reform", with plans to reclaim the landfill and build a new one and waste sorting plant nearby. Kyrgyzstan received 22 million euros from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) for this project: half as a loan and the other half as a grant.

Today, only about six million euros remain out of the initial 22 million, according to journalists from "Azattyk". Approximately 5 million went towards specialized equipment and containers in Bishkek. The whereabouts of the remaining funds are now being investigated by the State Audit Office, the Jogorku Kenesh (Parlament) commission, and the prosecutor's office, which has initiated four criminal cases.

Nevertheless, the Bishkek municipality does not lose hope of completing this project. "God willing, I will resolve the landfill issue to the end", — said Emilbek Abdykadirov in early 2022 after being appointed mayor.

Additionally, he promised to lay the foundation stone for the construction of a waste processing plant in a year. However, this is not a guarantee of the start of operations. One of the previous mayors, Surakmatov, laid the foundation stone with great ceremony for the construction of a new landfill in 2019, but Bishkek residents have yet to see any new landfill.
Author: Alexey Juravlev
Data-analysis: Alexey Juravlev, Amina Rafaeleva
Mentor and data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Dmitry Motinov
Author: Alexey Juravlev
Data-analysis: Alexey Juravlev, Amina Rafaeleva
Mentor and data editor: Savia Hasanona
Text editing: Savia Hasanona, Dmitry Motinov
This data driven story was created within the MediaJasa project, implemented by IDEA Central Asia with the support of the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan